Swan song

Loren considered the swan. Swans can be a complicated symbol.

A detail from plate 11 of Blake's Jerusalem

To labours mighty, with vast strength, with his mighty chains.
In pulsations of time, & extensions of space, like Urns of Beulah
With great labour upon his anvils, & ladles the Ore
He lifted, pouring the clay ground prepar’d with art;
Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems;
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawed at his own tender nerves,

Then Erin came forth from the Furnaces, & all the Daughters of Beulah
Came from the Furnaces, by Los’s mighty power for Jerusalems
Sake: walking up and down among the Spaces of Erin:
And the Sons and Daughters of Los came forth in perfection lovely!
And the Spaces of Erin reached from the starry heights to the starry depth.

William Blake, Jerusalem 11:1-12

There is a lot of speculation why Blake drew a swan with a woman’s body on this plate. I don’t buy most of it. The glosses read as if the swan is dying; the text underneath does not reflect a scene of death, but of birth. This scene is early in the massive poem; Los is labouring at his furnace, attempting to shape the world to match his “system,” striving to instill forgiveness through sympathy, as humanity grows and shapes itself. Erin is of course connected with the revolutionary forces in Ireland at the time Blake was writing; he saw some hope in the growth of revolutionary spirit around the world in his time. But pay close attention to the language used here. Erin walked “up and down through the spaces of Erin,” much like Satan in the Book of Job. Is revolution a good thing? There seems to be a subtext of mixed feelings throughout the opening of Jerusalem, a subtle shift from Blake’s earlier revolutionary politics. I feel sure that Yeats meditated deeply about this plate, as he did about most of Blake’s work, and saw in this a justification for re-writing Blake’s biography to make him an Irishman.

I feel reasonably certain that Yeats connected this plate with Leda, as I do myself. Leda was raped by Zeus. Leda had four children. two human, and two half-god. All twins, sprung from two contrary eggs. The children were born of rape. Some Blake commentators have remarked that the sad image is at odds with the happy scene of the plate, others have insisted that the swan is actually happy. I think Yeats, more than anyone else, has a real sense of what is going on here. Dr. Murphy, in his inimitable way, saw this legend as one of the primary ingredients that Yeats incorporated into his complex system of gyres, contraries and negations spinning against each other creating all of human history. A great and complex history was borne from this point, how could anyone know of the tragedies that would follow?

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow:the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

WB Yeats

Leda’s children were Clytemnestra, Helen and Castor and Pollux. Obviously, Helen could be considered responsible for the Trojan war, and the root of the problem of war on the planet might be traced to the rape of Leda. I think the question Yeats asks is a good one. Did Leda know what this rape would bring? The image of the swan, through this allegory (not through symbolic interpretation) is rich with its associations to violence, war, and revolution. It’s a bittersweet moment, indeed. Brother against brother, we struggle.

The allegory holds strong to the present day, and even shows up in a song by Dinosaur Jr. The swan, for me, will always be connected with the story of Leda. We can’t seem to get past the rape, and the wars that still follow this loss of innocence.

Forget the swan

It’s floating through the abyss
Under the brig my head swings down

Beware her wrath, the image gone
The Shell is crumbling, fix my frown
This spell would be clear in non-tradition
And stepping on these pieces of pain and smirk
And rape goes through to sin my eyes
And shapes know where the heartache will lurk

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Drifting among this rubble
I guess the waiting, wished I would
I found a box, untethered and true
Possession it understood

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

How I tried to warn my neighbor
But the corn was much too high
In confusion up and threw him, woke up every day
But it’s not too late brother, I’ll still say you were mine

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Forget the swan, the dreams are gone
The pain goes on, they fly at dawn

Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Same scene, three writers. Go figure. Some legends don’t want to die. Collapsing the richness of the story into a hard and fast symbol denies its complexity. Is humanity a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s complicated.

Oh, and on a final note, versions of the legend differ. In some versions, it wasn’t a swan and Leda, but instead a goose and Nemesis. Loren’s connection has more weight than just idle conjecture about birds. It’s not that “swan” means something special, it’s the story that lies behind it. It could just as easily be a goose. And as both Blake and Yeats conjecture, it’s also possible that after the rape Gods and humans might share each others characteristics, as Blake has so aptly drawn.

After all, as Blake wrote in one of his earliest tractates: “God becomes as we are, / that we may be as he is.”

1 thought on “Swan song”

  1. Some other noteworthy mythical associations with swans…. They are reputed to mate for life (which makes the rape all the more UNnatural). And swans are meant to be silent except for the song they sing upon dying, or upon the death of a mate, which is supposed to be exquisite.For what it’s worth –Pascale
    i found a different cultural perspective on swan: Looking Deeper: A Swan’s Questions & Answers Longchenpa translated by Herbert V. Guenther
    As for the meaning of the swan in Blake’s Jerusalem, I would like to quote a text from Swedenborg’s “The True Christian Religion” (Swedenborg was among Blake’s masters). Many details are the same as in the poem:”If the internal man is regenerated without the external being regenerated along with it, this can be compared (…) to a swan swimming in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the shore and make its nest, so that the eggs it lays sink into the water and are eaten by fish”. If so, the bird may well be a symbol of Jerusalem herself, unable as yet to be regenerated, so that she bows and “falls” towards Vala. Whom we can see at the page bottom while swimming underwater, “dressed” as Babylon.

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